How experiments can help multiply the growth of your art and business

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on March 29, 2013

in This is Art,This is Business

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“We are operating amid all this uncertainty–and that the purpose of building a product or doing any other activity is to create an experiment to reduce that uncertainty.” – Eric Ries, LeanStartup.com, interviewed by Fast Company Magazine.

Uncertainty.

Man, does that one word summarize your artistic and professional fears, or what?

You’re holding back. You know you are. I know you are.

Fear, most often born from uncertainty, is almost always what holds us back from really taking off with our art and business in the photography industry.

And we human beings are often illogical creatures. We fear failure. We fear success! We fear rejection more than we fear the possibility of never making our dreams come true.

Experiments, both artistic and in business, can help you chip away at the mental wall that is uncertainty. The more new things you try, the more you learn what works and what doesn’t – what resonates with you as a photographer and business owner.

There are three arenas in which you can and should experiment:

Experiment with your art

We’ll start with the obvious.

Growing in any fashion – artist, athlete, person – requires a little stretch – a little reach beyond your grasp.

When you first lay hands on your camera and experience the creation of art, after getting that early encouragement from friends and family, your passion burns bright. Suddenly, you and your camera cannot be separated, you’re reading everything you can get your hands on, and you enjoy an explosion of fast learning and improvement.

The dopamine is just a-flowin’.

Then, you hit one of two walls:

1. You get the idea in your head, through internal inspiration or external pressure, that your art should come from a deep metaphysical well of creativity, from the whispers of the muse, from the expression of your very being.

2. You get good at shooting maybe a dozen specific photos under specific conditions, and then settle into a rut – your creative bug gets squashed, and you find yourself shooting the same photos over and over again.

Both of these scenarios will bring your progress as an artist to a crawl.

And as usual, the fire gets rekindled when you learn to balance the two extremes.

Depending upon your confidence and speed behind the camera, for each hour of shooting you should take 15-30 minutes to experiment with something new – a new scene at your favorite location, a new lighting technique, a new angle, a new pose or expression. The options are many.

For the first portion of my photo shoots, I do the tried-and-true shots – every photo I feel this client will want, based on my talk with them beforehand, how their personalities play during the shoot, and from past experience, what I know most folks like.

For the second portion, it’s all experimentation.

I may have in mind a specific photo I want to practice making, something that inspired me from the Internet, a magazine, or photography book. In this case, I’ve studied the photo or technique, researched the methods to make it, and long before taking the photo, I have a very clear map in my mind of what I want to shoot and how I need to get there.

I may also draw upon the muse and follow where she takes me. As you grow as an artist, this method of experimentation yields far better fruit. But even as a new professional, you may surprise yourself. Even when I let my imagination guide me, it’s because I have proactively chosen to use this precious time with a client to try new things.

I get my best results from this time by having a specific image to experiment with making – having studied well how to make it – and then riffing off of that idea with many similar variations.

Once I’ve set up the scene (found my location, sourced my light, checked my background, positioned and posed my subject, evoked the right expressions from them), I snap a few photos, study them on the camera, and make adjustments to try and best imitate the photo I had studied.

When I better understand the photo I’m trying to make, having most likely failed but gleaned what did and didn’t work, I’ll experiment off this base setup and try all kinds of new things. If I feel the scene looks good, the light and location and background have good potential, I’ll let my imagination run wild and work the experiment for all I can learn.

For my style of shooting, this is a great way to end my shoots – the moment is fun, the energy is high, and my client can tell I’m wringing every ounce of art out of the shoot.

When you’re shooting for practice or portfolio (read: for free), spend a greater portion of your overall shoot practicing new techniques, scenes, etc.

Try to keep your practice focused, though – have a specific, studied, intentional result in mind, and then once you feel you understand that photo (which may not mean you’re able to recreate it, but you understand why or why not), you can begin to play some photographic jazz over that baseline.

When there’s money on the table, always knock out your fundamental salable photos first – even if they’re easy, even if you’ve shot the same photo in the same place with the same light over and over again. That repetition makes the known money-making shots second nature, and even after doing the same photo hundreds of times, you will still learn and grow from the infinite small variations and modifications that take an 80% photo to 85%, 90%, 95%.

Same coin, different side, don’t skip the experimentation and practice portion of your photo shoot just because your client is paying for your time and talent. I’m a firm believer in the value of practicing on paying clients – you get to shoot something you’ve never shot before, and they perhaps get to see something they’ve never seen before.

Ask Eminem: it takes whole lot of practice to freestyle like a natural.

Experiment with your business

Change the name of your business.

Call clients back within an hour.

Offer 15 minute themed mini shoots.

Hang your art at the local meat market (as in beef, not beefcake).

Sell only digital.

Sell only prints.

Sell only canvas.

Charge a session fee.

Charge no session fee.

Change your prices every week.

Buy your prints from a different lab.

Cut your portfolio down to five photos.

Blow your portfolio up to a hundred photos.

Change your portfolio template.

Write thank-you notes to all your clients.

Put your clients on your family Christmas card list.

Turn your logo into the silhouette of a chicken.

Start making your major business decisions with the flip of a coin.

Go get your photo taken by another photographer.

Go get your photo taken by a better photographer.

Follow your heart.

Just Do It.

Savvy?

Not to sound like an agent of chaos, but I can’t tell you how little all this business stuff matters.

Are you making your clients happy?

Are you growing every day (even a little)?

Are you earning enough money for your time that you grin every time a client pays you (even a little)?

This is what matters.

Everything else is just a game; a big, long-term experiment that is wholly unique to your market, your clientele, your art, and your personality. And the glorious part is, you can only get better.

I can’t tell you, nor can anyone else tell you, what will work best for you.

What I can tell you, is that you need to get started today with the important things:

Make your clients happy.

Grow every day (even a little).

Price your work humbly, but well enough to earn that little grin.

Everything else that is holding you back, stopping you in your tracks – your business name, your web site design, your Facebook page, your portfolio choices, your uncertainty about almost every decision – is only delaying your success, your growth, and your satisfaction.

The only prudence I promote is to be sure your business is legal across the board – permits, DBAs, sales tax permits, etc. – before you accept your first dollar. I cannot emphasize enough the value of a good sit-down visit with a CPA, and the confidence you can walk with knowing that your business is fully on the up-and-up.

It’s not just about covering your butt down the road, but giving you the security to focus your mental energy on serving clients and creating art.

Experiment with your marketing

To paraphrase the great sports photographer Dave Black, “Always be where everyone else is not.”

If you’re reading this line, you’re already where many would-be professional photographers are not – and this line, this very blog, exists because PTP is “where everyone else is not.”

I created PTP after a decade of hearing the same horseh*t from the same disgruntled grognards who have long taken a sick satisfaction from discouraging part time professional photographers like you and me.

And when you begin to walk your own road, away from the beaten path, it’s no longer you versus John Doe, Photographer; versus Perfect Schott Photography; versus Happy Tails Photography; and the many others.

It’s You versus Everyone Else.

When you change the rules of the game, when you change the game itself, the competitive scenario becomes a two-player field – You, and Them.

When everyone else charges a session fee and you don’t, there are no longer five players in your market – there’s You, and Everyone Else.

When you answer your phone and the four other photographers in town let it go to voicemail – there’s You, and Everyone Else.

When you can turnaround a photo shoot in 24 hours, ready to sell, and the other guys are taking a week – two weeks – a month – there’s You, and Everyone Else.

So it goes.

There are innumerable good, valid, viable, reasonable, profitable ways to differentiate your photography business from Everyone Else.

If your business card looks just like Everyone Else, and I can’t find the phone number on your web site like Everyone Else, and you don’t say in your portfolio what geographic area you serve like Everyone Else, and you have 13 different niches of photography from landscapes to wildlife to portraits in your portfolio like Everyone Else… I’m going to assume you’re just like Everyone Else.

It’s easy to get caught looking at what Everyone Else is doing – through forums online, through Google, through looking at other photogs in your market – and copycat them to the point that there’s nothing left of your originality, no story to tell about why and how you’re different from Everyone Else.

Experiment.

Try Craigslist.

Try small newspaper ads.

Try a booth at market days.

Try changing up your business card.

Try simplifying (always try simplifying).

Try tacking your business card to all the local billboards.

Try co-op marketing with a local business that serves your target market.

Try volunteering your services to a local charity whose cause you’re passionate about.

Try volunteering as a sports photographer for your local athletic booster club or community newspaper.

Try lots and lots of different things to get your name and reputation as a photographer out in your market.

Don’t let analysis paralysis set in – marketing is the last step in really putting yourself out there as a professional, so proactively getting your art, business, and message out there in the world is a big leap. Don’t suffocate under a mountain of options – choose one that speaks to you and give it your best effort.

There will always be uncertainty.

You’ll never know if something will or won’t work until you try it. And even if something works, it might not work the right way for you – some marketing efforts are going to bring in great clients who value your work, and some efforts are going to draw the high-maintenance, price-shopping crowd.

The only way to learn what marketing methods, venues, messages, and campaigns work in your community is to give them a try. Even still, what’s successful (or unsuccessful) this year may change in a year or so.

I love marketing, every bit as much as I love creating art and serving clients. Good marketing puts the right product or service in front of the right clientele, and everyone benefits from it.

With every experiment you do, you will learn, and you will grow.

Don’t let uncertainty keep you too busy, too distracted, and too scared to experiment and grow – use experiments to invalidate uncertainty.

What’s in your petri dish?

Next Steps

  • Experiment with your Art: Find a photo that you would love to be able to make for your clients, then study in detail how to make it. Ask the original photographer how they did it, what tips they might have. Ask on your favorite photography forum how others would recreate the photo. Learn what techniques were used, what kind of lighting or light modifiers, study the subject’s emotion and expression and how you can evoke the same in your clients – really dig down and learn about every aspect of how this photo is made with consistency. When you think you’ve got everything you need, on your very next shoot, paid or not, make recreating this photo the focus of your time for experimental work. Study, practice, fail, study, practice, fail – and get closer and closer each time until you’ve got it nailed. Then, play that lovely Photographic Jazz.
  • Experiment with your Business: Hold on to your Starbucks! Right now, while you and I are sitting here together, finalize every single decision about your business you’ve been stuck on for too long. Business name, domain name, business card design, anything and everything – it’s over. You’re not going to indulge this triviality another day. Make the decisions here and now. As my father would say, “Do something, even if it’s the wrong damn thing.” Now, ready for this? In six months, change it up. Change something, or change everything. Mark it on your calendar – for six months from today – to change your business. It’s every bit as reasonable and valuable to evolve as a business as it is to evolve as an artist.
  • Experiment with your Marketing: I write more about marketing than any other topic here on PTP – the many, many great ways to get your art and name out there, so you can be a blessing to and blessed by an ever-growing client base. Pick something, pick anything from the many ideas here or elsewhere, and make it an awesome experiment – Aristotle had it down over 2,000 years ago: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
  • Brainstorm session: Get out your pen and paper, and write down every imaginable way you can come up with to experiment with your art, your business, and your marketing. Just let it flow – it can be a trickle or a stream, but write it all out. Empty your brain and imagination of all the creative, fun, and hopefully effective ways you can become a better professional photographer through experiments. File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew April 3, 2013 at 11:23 am

This article=Mind Blown. Great job James. I really like this website that you have going here. It is always informative and entertaining. I like the way that you write your articles-they are very personal. It feels as if I’m sitting in a room with you, holding my camera and having you explain these things. Just to let you know, you’re awesome!

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm

Thank you, as always, for your great comments, Andrew!

I’m so glad that you’re enjoying the web site – it’s truly my pleasure to help out. I’ve been blessed by my part time photography business for 14 years now, and I’m more than happy to help others enjoy the same.

Thank you again for your readership!

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Pink April 10, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Your articles are always inspiring and refreshing. Something i need most as i get ready to pull a trigger and become a part timetime photographer. All the wonderful information in your website are a great wealth of knowledge and inspiration. This particular article comes just in time for me to start my adventure and share my passion eith others Thanks for the time to write and share.

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Riquise Barley April 25, 2013 at 4:57 am

You, my dear Sir, are a savior. I just spent the past half an hour mulling over other local photographers and feeling pretty much the worst ever, finding out clients I spent time on decided to go with these other photographers. This epic bout of self pity ended up with tears and chocolate until I got online and stumbled upon your wisdom. Don’t worry. I am ok. 🙂 This post alone has spoken more to me than any mumbo jumbo crap I have read online about photography. I have been over-analyzing everything to the point of crazy. There is so much to do starting out…learning your camera…..software ……poses …..lighting….Iso….aperature…..shutter speed….marketing …..packaging ……printing …..prices!!! It’s enough to make me pull my hair out. I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot why I love photography and why I AM different from everyone else. Thank you for doing what you do and taking the time to make the lives of people like me easier. In a nutshell you rock!!!!!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 28, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Riquise! I love your name! And your What To Wear Pinterest Board is a fantastic idea! I greatly enjoyed visiting your portfolio tonight, you create beautiful art for your clients.

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site – you are creating great art for your clients, blessing them with your talents and hard work. And the great part is, you, your art, your business, and your success will only get better. Keep up the faith, keep making progress every day (even a little bit!), and you’ll get to where you want to be.

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Kevin Stacey April 28, 2013 at 8:20 am

Wow, just wow. I love the wisdom and approach you share with us. You have really helped my PTP business grow- THANK YOU! Your simple approach to pricing, marketing and just “work hard” attitude is great.

Thanks again,

Kevin

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Thank you so much for your kind words, Kevin! I’m excited that PTP has helped you grow your business. I’ve been blessed by my business for 14 years now, and I’m truly happy to see other folks enjoying the same benefits.

I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site tonight – your portfolio is simply amazing! Such a wonderful style and variety of photographs, many of them very challenging captures. Way to push your boundaries and create unique, wonderful art for your clients. You are a blessing to your market.

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Michelle May 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Hi James,
You are the reason I have dark circles under my eyes today. I just stumbled upon your blog last night, and spent the better part of what should have been my bedtime reading your articles. Lucky for me, they are so informative and just what I’m looking for. This one is great. The fear that’s stopping me from making the leap from amateur to marketed-and-paid-photographer is lack of time. Caring for my two year old twins takes up 95% of my time, so I worry that I won’t be able to keep up with the photography once I get going and and I’ll be run ragged into the ground (which, depending on how you look at it, could be a good thing — it would mean that I’m getting business, yay!). It’s hard enough as it is trying to find the time to learn about photography, let alone the time it takes to do a session, edit, etc. I know I can take on fewer sessions, but then I fear that I’ll be missing out on an opportunity. It’s always SOMETHING, isn’t it?! Thanks for giving back to the photography community. So many of us are grateful.

Best,
Michelle

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Thank you so much for your comment and kind words, Michelle! I greatly enjoyed visiting your Facebook page tonight – you make beautiful art!

I completely understand your fear – we photographers vacillate between a fear of success and a fear of failure! We worry we’ll be overly successful and burn out, or that we’ll put ourselves out there and the phone won’t ring once!

Your art is lovely. I would encourage you to set up your business in full – business cards, web site, Facebook, e-mail newsletter – and then take baby steps in marketing yourself. Limit yourself strictly on bookings – one per week, or maybe even just one per month. Any shoots you do are going to give you tons of great experience you just can’t get without doing them. Not just artistically, but in working with clients, serving them, creating a great experience for them, seeking and seeing opportunities to better your knowledge, talents, and materials.

It’s okay to have to tell people you can’t shoot with them. If you did end up with an overabundance of potential clients, you can just be more choosey in who you work with. It’s perfectly okay to have an ‘ideal client’ in mind, and to favor clients who fit that profile. Want to only do deeply-shadowed black and white lifestyle portraits of children being kids? Make that your niche! Only take clients who are excited about the work you love to do. When bookings are up, you can be selective – in fact, I encourage it. You’ll be most inspired and invigorated by working with clients you love.

All that said, in perfect honesty, it’s highly unlikely you’ll experience a huge influx of clients – but for the Facebooks and Twitters and MySpaces of the world, very, very few businesses (including small businesses) experience exponential growth. The hardest part is getting that first client. The second hardest, is getting that second client. The more you shoot, the easier it all gets, and you start turning over referrals and great word-of-mouth from your client base. But you have to start – the sooner you do, the sooner you can build up that steady stream of potential clients, with which to work, from whom you may (eventually) pick and choose.

Begin humbly, and begin with one: earn each client, one at a time.

It’s easy to get caught up in “marketing” and become overwhelmed with trying to be everything to everyone, or say everything to everyone. With 100% consistency, I’ve seen it turn out far better when you carve a niche and focus your artistic and marketing efforts on reaching and impressing that target market. Own Your Zip Code – start with your own street. Are you the photographer of choice for your neighbors? For your friends and family? For your kids’ daycare? Why or why not? It’s no reflection on you as an artist or person or business – but it’s another way to look at marketing, and how narrow and specific your focus should be in who you reach out to – and how.

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

Reply

Pat Harris June 12, 2013 at 1:57 am

As usual, I feel like a broken record with my compliments. You’ve given me the right words at the right time, as usual. Thanks so much for the inspiration and advice!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Thank you Pat, I really aprpecciate your kind words and your readership! Rock on!

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Allen Cook July 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Another home run, Sir Outlaw. Love the idea of Photographic Jazz, especially since I play jazz piano. It takes lots of experimenting to find out what does and doesn’t work. And you build some great photo “chops” in the process. Thanks for all you do. ‘Preshate cha! (of course you got that, yes? translation: I appreciate you). Be well!

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Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor May 25, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Thank you again Allen! I appreciate your readership! If there’s anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Reply

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